A few years ago my writer group friend Vanessa Diffenbaugh submitted the first pages of her new novel for me to critique during our next meeting. Vanessa always wrote with courage. I expected to like the pages.
I didn't expect the pages to yank my heart out of my chest. I didn't expect to meet a main character as compelling and damaged and brave as Victoria. Victoria is a young person whom the foster care system has failed completely. She finds human connection and communication difficult except through the Victorian language of flowers. At 18 she must fend for herself in San Francisco with no support, no money, no friends.
I put the pages down and called my mom. I didn't know what else to do. My friend Vanessa's book was going to change the world. I had to tell somebody right away.
When writing group met I had critiques and suggestions as always. I also had the message that this novel was special and amazing and would sell for tons of money and start Vanessa's career.
Well I was right.
Vanessa and I had been writing buddies for four years when she began The Language of Flowers. We met Tuesday nights at Cafe Bernardo's in midtown Sacramento for salads and wine and talk. We wrote our names on a restaurant napkin as we would like to see them on the covers of our first published books. By the time she was in revisions for Language of Flowers, I was her foster son's teacher and advisor at the urban charter high school where her husband served as principal. Our smaller children played together at the neighborhood pool in the summer. Our lives entwined in a certain kind of rare, effortless friendship that made everything better.
Vanessa made being a writer fun. We had a similar work ethic and we worked hard together. We wrote and read one another's work. We recommended books to each other and then read those books and discussed them. We holed up for entire days in her in-laws' empty apartment in San Francisco, breaking only for dim sum before getting right back to it. Vanessa's discipline and focus inspired me.
Vanessa still inspires me, of course. Her husband's acceptance into a doctorate program at Harvard took the Diffenbaughs away from Sacramento last summer. The past year has seen Language of Flowers released in 31 countries, including the U.S. this August. She has used her new fame to build a non-profit organization called The Camellia Network in order to connect foster youth with the support they need to transition into productive adult lives. In the Victorian language of flowers, a Camellia means "my destiny is in your hands." She has used the success of her novel as a platform to help young people like her character Victoria who have so few adults looking after them.
So while I miss our Tuesday night salads it is amazing to see so many readers embrace and appreciate an author who deserves accolades both as a writer and as a human being. She is living the dream that we shared together. So many children are already benefiting from her hard work and success.
I will review Language of Flowers properly closer to the August 23 release date. As for today, I am sitting down to a long day of writing. I will eat salad for lunch and then go right back to it. Vanessa taught me how powerful writing is. She taught me that it is important.
If Vanessa were writing across from me right now like she was in the old days I would not interrupt her work by talking. I would simply present her with a pink rose. A pink rose for grace.